3 Jun 2013

F1 - You're not racing any more

There has been a lot of negative comment of late about how this season of Formula 1 appears to have very little to do with racing, and more to do with tyre management strategy. Pirelli were charged with creating tyres that were able to last up to half a race, but with their motorsport director Paul Hembery admitting that they’d probably underestimated the performance of this year’s cars and the stresses involved, drivers have been forced to make anything up to five stops in a race. 

Because tyre degradation has been so rapid and total, race strategies have become less about using pit stops to gain competitive advantage and more about getting the cars in before they become undriveable. The point where tyre condition begins to negatively affect performance has often been referred to in the past as the ‘cliff’; this season, rather than falling over the edge, tyre degradation has been more like one of those stories you see on the news, where a piece of coastline suddenly crumbles away without warning and takes someone’s house with it.

Some teams have been more critical than others, with Red Bull’s Dietrich Mateschitz declaring that F1 has ‘nothing to do with racing any more.’ The BBC’s David Coulthard put it more succinctly while commentating on the situation during the Monaco Grand Prix: ‘This is rubbish.’

Leaving some of the more political debate aside though, is this really the case?

Whether it’s ‘rubbish’ or not is one thing, but what about the wider issue of how the tyres are affecting racing? How do you define racing, anyway?

Of course it’s about who gets over the line first, but without going all Aesop, it’s not necessarily about who goes fastest. Sergio Perez is fast but gets himself into trouble by pushing it a little bit too far, too often. Pastor Maldonado is fast, and somehow surprised everyone by winning a race last season in a car that was frankly (no pun intended) a bit crap. Romain Grosjean is often very fast, and has a car that can win races, but he was back in grinning simpleton mode at Monaco, and managed to crash four times. I think there’s hope for Perez, if he can temper his aggressive challenging style with a little responsibility, but the others need to start their own team, get it sponsored by Nintendo and drive under the name Super Smash Bros. They could offer the third seat to Kamui Kobayashi.

It’s also important to remember that Formula 1 is not just about a man and a car winning races. Formula 1 is a team sport, albeit one with a highly individual focus. For every driver, there is a team of people analysing, strategising, setting up their cars and guiding their races. Part of determining a race strategy is taking into account the conditions that will be common to all on the grid: things like the weather, track temperature, length of lap, surface conditions… and tyres. 

Racing isn’t just about getting in the car and caning it as fast as possible for the entire duration. If that’s all there was to it, everyone would be able to do it, and there would be no need for a Constructors’ Championship. It’s about knowing when to push hard and when to hold back, the best places to brake, and the right moment to accelerate. It’s about understanding that sometimes conditions dictate a slower pace, and that failure to appreciate that can be the difference between climbing the podium and hitting the barriers.

And yes, it’s about understanding how to manage your tyres. Just because the tyres are more difficult to deal with this season, it doesn’t mean you don’t race. OK, so it means you’re restricted, but at any given Grand Prix, you’re restricted by any number of factors. You can’t go flat out when it’s raining, but if it rains, the FIA can’t exactly demand a change in the weather. That’s why it has started to grate a bit when certain teams grumble that they aren’t racing any more because they’re too busy concentrating on tyre management. We’re six races into the season now – that’s enough to recognise that, this year at least, tyre management is a big part of a race winning strategy.

But the point is it is still winning races. It’s just that different elements have to be prioritised. I’m not saying I like what Pirelli have done – I think this year’s tyres are crap, and they are definitely leading to bitty, disjointed races – but surely the teams should be developing and setting up their cars as far as possible to take the way the tyres degrade into account, and planning their race strategies accordingly? Instead, we’ve now got the ridiculous situation where some teams are getting their heads down and getting on with it while some other teams are throwing their toys out of their prams and demanding Pirelli do something about it.

And now they have, and they’re still moaning. In fairness, I can understand the cries of ‘referee’ over the Mercedes tests, and the only way around it I can see is if every team is offered the same opportunity to do 1000km of testing with current cars and drivers. With less than two weeks until the Canadian GP, I don’t see that happening. And what about the teams who have been playing the game and trying to work with this season’s rubber? It’s hardly fair on them to suddenly change the tyres just because someone in Maranello or Milton Keynes is a bit miffed.

The 2013 tyres are pretty hopeless; that’s something everyone can agree on. I certainly want to see massive improvements for 2014, with drivers able to cane it around the track without having to stop four or five times for new boots. 

 Then again, I want to see my team improve too, because they’ve not been doing too well lately. I also want an Aston Martin, and a pink pony with wings*. The thing is, as Mick Jagger once said, you can’t always get what you want. It’s frustrating as a fan to see cars struggling to perform, and it’s obviously frustrating for the drivers too. 

This season is already shaping up to be bad tempered and difficult, and there’s a danger that the politics and dissatisfaction are going to spill out and suck all the entertainment out of it. But it’s not the first time things have changed - the history of F1 is full of rules and restrictions that pissed people off – and it certainly won’t stand still in the years to come. Whatever solutions are offered now, it’s highly unlikely that Pirelli will be able to please everyone, and the best thing for the sport must be for the teams to get on with racing… regardless of how racing is defined.

*OK, maybe not a pink pony with wings. Please don’t write in and bombard me with My Little Pony. No, really – don’t… 

Article by Sharon Endacotte